Aromatherapy has been used as a form of alternative medicine since ancient times. This holistic therapy uses essential oils and other aromatic compounds to promote emotional and physical well-being. While not recognized as a legitimate branch of medicine in the U.S., aromatherapy is a holistic therapy practiced by many doctors and scientists all over the world. In addition, aromatherapy is incorporated into numerous spa treatments and beauty products that are utilized on a daily basis.
Essential oils are concentrated extracts taken from the roots, leaves, seeds, or blossoms of plants. Each contains its own mix of active ingredients, and this mix determines what the oil is used for. Some oils are used to promote physical healing — for example, to treat swelling or fungal infections. Others are used for their emotional value — they may enhance relaxation or make a room smell pleasant. Orange blossom oil, for example, contains a large amount of an active ingredient that is thought to be calming.
Although the word “aroma” makes it sound as if the oils would be inhaled – they can also be massaged into the skin. Whether inhaled or applied on the skin, essential oils are gaining new attention as an alternative treatment for infections, stress, and other health problems.
The Two Delivery Systems:
1. Absorption. This method is best for muscle aches and joint pains. When essential oils are applied to the skin, the molecules pass through the skin and are carried away by the capillary blood circulated in the dermis. These molecules are then taken into the lymphatic and extracellular fluids. The body takes the most vital properties of essential oils and uses what it needs; the rest is then metabolized and eliminated with the body’s waste.
2. Inhalation. This method is best for alleviating sinus congestions, but not recommended for those with asthma. The quickest and most effective way to use essential oils for emotional well-being is through inhalation, because it provides the most direct route to the brain. Essential oils have tiny molecules that, when inhaled, reach the olfactory epithelium, which is two groups of about 25 million receptor cells at the top of the nostrils. Odors are then converted into messages, which are relayed to the brain for processing.
Researchers are not entirely clear how aromatherapy may work. Some experts believe our sense of smell may play a role. The “smell” receptors in your nose communicate with parts of your brain that serve as storehouses for emotions and memories. When you breathe in essential oil molecules, some researchers believe that they stimulate these parts of your brain and influence physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, lavender is believed to stimulate the activity of brain cells similar to the way some sedative medications work. Other researchers think that some molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.
Aromatherapy is used in a wide range of settings — from health spas to hospitals — to treat a variety of conditions. In general, it seems to relieve pain, improve mood, and promote a sense of relaxation.
Several clinical studies suggest that when essential oils (particularly rose, lavender, and frankincense) were used by qualified midwives, pregnant women felt less anxiety and fear, had a stronger sense of well-being, and had less need for pain medications during delivery. Many women also report that peppermint oil relieves nausea and vomiting during labor.
In spas, there is a variety of ways to receive the benefits of aromatherapy. Popular treatments include aromatherapy massages, facials, wraps and hydrotherapy baths to which essential oils have been added. Massage therapy with essential oils (combined with medications or therapy) may benefit people with depression. The scents are thought by some to stimulate positive emotions in the area of the brain responsible for memories and emotions, but the benefits seem to be related to relaxation caused by the scents and the massage. A person’ s belief that the treatment will help also influences whether it works.
In test tubes, chemical compounds from some essential oils have shown antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Some evidence also suggests that citrus oils may strengthen the immune system and that peppermint oil may help with digestion. Fennel, aniseed, sage, and clary-sage have estrogen-like compounds, which may help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause. However, human studies are lacking.
Other conditions for which aromatherapy may be helpful include:
- Alopecia areata (hair loss)
- Agitation, possibly including agitation related to dementia
- Constipation (with abdominal massage using aromatherapy)
- Pain: Studies have found that people with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer (using topical chamomile), and headaches (using topical peppermint) require fewer pain medications when they use aromatherapy
- Itching, a common side effect for those receiving dialysis
Although aromatherapy is not fully recognized as a branch of medicine, the history, healing and health benefits of this holistic approach speak for itself. Since ancient times people have used aspects of aromatherapy to promote the wellness of mind body and spirit, and we continue to do so in today’s society.